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Search intent: A guide for better SEO and rankings

Ignoring search intent can quickly result in ranking losses, or even failure to rank. We explain the different types of search intent, and how to create content that matches.

How did you arrive at this article? If you reached it by looking for information on search intent then it seems we’ve done something right!

You may already know that the overarching goal for any search engine is to provide suitable, satisfactory results for a given search query. So that users find what they’re looking for, and come back next time they need to know something.

In Google’s own words, “Our mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Which means that limiting your website optimizations to technical factors such as crawlability, structured data and sitemap structure is only part of the SEO work you should be doing.

To help search engines surface the right content (and improve your own page rankings), you need to know what search intent is, and how to use it effectively in your SEO. And that's exactly why we've put together this guide on search intent.

>> Try our quiz on search intent <<

What is search intent?

Simply put, it describes the intent a user has with their search query. Are they looking for a company website perhaps? Or looking to learn something? Maybe they want to buy something?

We’ll cover these three different search types (“Know” / “Go” / “Do”) shortly, but first let’s look at an example.

Let's say a user searches Google for "bake low calorie cookies" – this tells Google's search algorithm that the user is looking for a recipe, but also that he or she is conscious about calories.

Fig. 1: Google search results for the search term "bake low calorie cookies"

But it's not just Google. Every search engine is carefully tuned to interpret search intent as accurately as possible. Google has made this even clearer with the MUM Framework introduced in 2021. And just like the algorithm and its capabilities, search intent is constantly growing and evolving.

Understanding search intent means understanding what users are looking for when they enter a search query. For your website to rank in search results, the content you provide must match the content the user is looking for with their search term.

This applies to both the subject matter and the content format. Otherwise, your chances of ranking and generating traffic from the right users will become increasingly lower. In the worst case, ignoring user intent can result in ranking losses or failure to rank. So yes, user intent is (very) important for SEO!

Google takes the search intent of its users very seriously. In fact, it’s one of Google's main goals when suggesting search results to a user.

If a user searches for a term or keyword and does not find the information they’re looking for, they will almost certainly adjust the search query and try again. This tells Google that the results page it delivered did not match the search intent.

Which in turn could mean that a website no longer ranks on page 1 of the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) for a given search term, or to rank further down in the next search for the same keyword or search term.

Webites can only really improve their rankings noticeably if search engines classify them as relevant to users' search queries. And since search intent plays a decisive role here, you should always place search intent at the forefront of your SEO.

Optimizing for user intent can also improve your website's SEO in other ways:

  • Keyword research: A better understanding of search intent means you can more easily incorporate keywords that promise the best results into your content.

  • More authority: With content that exactly matches a user’s search intent, you provide exactly the information they are looking for. A user will view your site as a reliable and reputable source.

  • Lower bounce rate: If you give your visitors exactly what they want, they will have no reason to bounce from your site to another.

  • Brand awareness: Users are willing to spend more time on a site that provides them with the information and answers they’re looking for. And the more time they spend on your site, the more familiar they become with your brand.

So, by optimizing your website for the search intentions of your target audience, visitors, leads or customers, you ensure an optimized user experience. And that, in turn, pays dividends for your rankings and reputation!

But how exactly does SEO optimization for search intent work?

Tips for optimizing for search intent

In order to optimize your content for user intent, you first need to understand what intent a user has with their search in the first place. Then you can target your offer to their needs – whether that’s with a product, service, article or something else.

So how do you identify search intent?

By inferring it from the language used in the search keywords. This can be a challenge at times!

However, the good news is that there are only three main types of user intent you need to consider. And also, there are modifiers commonly used for each type of search intent, like “best”, “cheap”, “how” etc.

The evolution of of search intent types

Previously, the SEO industry talked about four different search intents: Informational, Navigational, Transactional and Commercial.

Now however, this has been reduced to three main types of search intent: “Know”, “Go” and “Do”. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

“Know” search intent

These are the searches where someone wants to learn more about a specific topic. Maybe you googled "What is search intent?" and landed on this page.

Example searches for know intent are:

  • What is search intent?

  • The best tips on search intent SEO

  • How to derive user intent for SEO?

“Go” search intent

Users perform these searches when they want to find a specific website or a real-world location. For example, a user might search for "Ryte platform SEO" to find out more about the Ryte Platform and its SEO capabilities.

Or they might search for “Chinese restaurant in London”, or “hairdressers in London”, for example. You’ve probably done searches like this countless times in the past week alone.

“Do” search intent

When a search query is aimed at a specific action – like buying a product, or downloading something – it’s a “Do” search intent.

Example searches might be: "marketing software demo" or "free marketing course".

Modifier keywords often indicate the intention: "free", for example, indicates that a user is interested in taking a marketing course, but does not want to spend any money on it. "Demo" indicates that the user is interested in buying the software, but wants to test it first without any obligation.

Other keywords included here often describe a targeted action, like “buy”, “download”, “order” and so on.

Now, to gain an advantage over your competitors, you need to give these search intent types the right space on your website and try to address all the different user intent perspectives.

Nevertheless, there are challenges even when optimizing websites for user search intent, as we shall see in the next section…

The challenges of identifying search intent

If it was simple to identify search intent at scale for any keyword, then everyone would do it flawlessly. Unfortunately however, it’s not that simple:

Search intent can shift over time

User intent is not static. That means a user's intent can change over time. Let's take the keyword "Wuhan" as an example.

Before the Corona pandemic, the implied intent was the desire for information about a city in China. Since the pandemic, the search intent shifted. People wanted information on the virus outbreak – and Google responded. Instead of top stories and results about Wuhan as a travel destination, the search engine primarily returned web links to pages addressing the virus.

Fig. 2: Search results for the keyword "Wuhan"

This natural change in the meaning or intent of search queries is clearly highlighted by Google in its search results quality guidelines.

Search intent can be seasonal

Consider the keyword "Halloween”. A search might be focused on the spooky celebrations traditionally held on All Saints’ Eve. But it can also mean the classic movie from 1981, or the entire film series.

Every year around October 31st, Google's algorithm adjusts search results to show more results related to the holiday than to the movie.

Fig. 3: Google results in summer 2022 for the keyword "Halloween"

The difference here is that searches for “Wuhan” had a constant intent that changed at a certain point in time. The Halloween example changes its user intent seasonally each year.

To properly measure and interpret your SEO efforts, it’s essential to understand the difference in ambiguous search queries when optimizing for search intent.

Search intent can be multidimensional

But what if a search query has multiple intents that have little relation to one another?

For example, someone who enters the search term “cookies” might be looking for recipes (“Know”), or somewhere to buy baked biscuits (“Do”). Or they might be looking for info on the text files in internet browser caches. So you see, a search query can have several intentions, which don’t change over time.

Search engines are constantly optimizing their algorithms to decipher the many dimensions and meanings of search queries and to improve the hit rate of the output content. One way in which they do this is by looking at all search behavior, on both an individual and aggregated level. In this way, Google and other search engines hope to get better at displaying the results that users want to see, even if they haven’t clearly formulated a search query.

Other potential difficulties with search intent

The dynamic nature of search intent is just one of the challenges faced when optimizing your SEO. Other difficulties can include:

  • Identifying search intent at scale (across a large number of keywords)

  • The different devices that users use can change intent

  • The location can play a role in determining intent

  • Keywords or search phrases can be ambiguous

>> Try our quiz on search intent <<

Solutions and tips for meeting search intent

As we’ve discovered, a search query can have very different intents, and doesn’t always fit neatly into one of three categories (informational, navigational, transactional).

Users often have very specific goals in mind when they query a search engine. For example:

  • “I want to learn what a word means”

  • “I want to compare prices”

  • “I want to find images for my presentation”

  • “I want to book a vacation”

Let's look at a simple user intent that illustrates how complicated the user behavior behind it is: booking a trip.

All too often, we are misled by the notion that a funnel takes users from the awareness phase to decision-making in a straightforward, direct manner. But as Google published on its "Think With Google" platform back in 2016, users have a variety of digital touchpoints as they move through a more complicated customer journey. Using data from multiple people (searches made, clicks, page visits and video views), each had booked a journey.

One of the Think With Google case studies featured a user named "Gina" who had 850 digital touchpoints in three months as part of her travel planning. She made a total of 166 searches, about a quarter (24%) of which she did on a mobile device, and another quarter of them on Google Maps.

This suggests that the intent of a search can change several times within the context of a higher-level goal. Therefore, it’s a good idea to come up with your own definitions and categories for your users' search intent.

You can be guided by the question, "What do people really want to know when they search for a keyword?”

The intent of a search query can also depend on the user's location. For example, someone searching for "tulip" from the sofa may choose to be shown a garden or Wikipedia website, but on the go via mobile may be shown the nearest flower store or a restaurant of the same name at the top of the SERPs. Search intent is very dependent on location.

3 possible interpretations of ambiguous search queries

Whenever a search phrase or keyword can have more than one meaning, we can talk about ambiguous search queries. If a user searches for the keyword "dogs”, it’s less unambiguous than a search like "dry food for sensitive dogs”.

In general, the shorter a search phrase is, the more ambiguity there is in the search intent. And the higher the search volume (but that's another story).

Google distinguishes between three types of interpretation of such ambiguous searches:

  1. The ”dominant interpretation” is what most users mean by the same search phrase.

  2. The ”common interpretation” is what many users mean by their search query. A search query can have several common interpretations.

  3. The ”subordinate interpretation” describes what the fewest users think of when they start a search.

You can find out more about Google's interpretations in their Quality Rater Guidelines.

In order to effectively address different search intents and refine its results, Google usually serves a mix of results aim at different intents.

What does all this mean for your SEO? Well, above all, it means that you need to be aware of which results can appear in the top 10 results for a given keyword.

For example, Google may reserve three spots in the top 10 results for a certain type of website. Depending on the search term, this can then look like Google putting out three review pages, two brand pages and four news or blog pages in its top 10. It’s therefore important to understand that Google can limit the number of results of a certain type of website.

As you can see, search intent can powerfully influence Google results.

What’s the solution? Longtail keywords! We’ve already seen that short-tail keywords can be very ambiguous in search intent. By adding more terms to a given search, the user is much more likely to find what they are looking for.

How to optimize your content for search intent

To optimize your content or website for user intent, you need to do two things: identify the user intent, and understand what users expect.

Here's how:

  1. Identify search intent

You can simply Google the keyword and analyze the pages and content types that Google ranks in the top positions for it. From the top ranking results, you can deduce the general search intent.

If you see a lot of articles (blogs, news sites) at the top, you should write an article to rank well. If you see videos there, a video can give you the ranking you are hoping for. If Google shows products, develop a product and so on and so forth. The best-ranking content gives a heavy hint on what people are looking for.

The titles of the results can also give you helpful hints about the user intent: reviews, definitions, abbreviations, store or product pages, etc. This already tells you a lot about what kind of content you should provide.

However, depending on how many keywords you have to derive or infer the user intent for, this can be a massive task. You can't regularly check search results for thousands of keywords. But there is a solution for this as well.

Google wants to offer users the best possible or most appropriate answer to their queries. For this purpose, it extends the search results with the so-called SERP features. These are modules like map packs, shopping ads, image carousels, videos, etc.

There are rank tracking tools that provide you with a list of SERP features that Google outputs for your keywords. These SERP features can help you infer the search intent for a given keyword: for example, a featured snippet usually contains a short, quick answer, while a video will provide a more detailed answer. A recipe obviously is for someone who wants to cook something, and a review helps make a purchasing decision.

Then you pull the SERP features that are relevant for your keywords from the tool, and export them by search volume. Preferably without brand searches, as these are irrelevant for your rankings.

You then import this list into a table document of your choice and add a COUNTA column. Using the pivot function, you can sort the data by the number of SERP results per feature.

With the help of the average value of each column, you can evaluate the most frequent user intent for your keywords. This allows you to draw conclusions about the intent and expectation of the users, and therefore what content offer you should provide to bring them to your site and thus improve your ranking in the long run.

Remember that search intent can change over time, so you should do this check every now and then and make adjustments.

Unfortunately, we can't use any numbers to quantify the correlation of your content with user satisfaction. Google doesn't tell you "your article matches 80 percent of the search intentions". So you need to use a certain amount of common sense, and fill in the rest with data.

2. Understand user expectations

Deriving user intent is only the first part. To optimize your content for search intent, you also need to understand what your users expect from you and your content. And that can be a little trickier.

Google ranks content based on how helpful search results actually are for users. To do this, they've created 5 "Needs Met" categories in their Quality Rater Guidelines:

  1. Fully Meets

  2. Highly Meets

  3. Moderately Meets

  4. Slightly Meets

  5. Fails to Meet

Ambiguous search queries cannot have a “Fully Meets” rating due to ambiguous interpretations.

Results that represent the common interpretation of search queries and have high authority, accuracy and credibility fall into the “Highly Meets” category. For example, medical or scientific content must conform to the general consensus and be highly accurate.

To put it in simple terms: you have to ask yourself what users are expecting to get, and then fulfil these expectations, at the very least. Ideally of course, you’ll exceed their expectations.

Unfortunately, there’s no common yardstick for this. Your content marketers need to assess user expectations before creating content formats and content. Which means creating content to the best of their ability, backed by data. Then monitoring what search queries Google is trying to match with your content pieces and adjust them over time.

Tip: You can find out which of your pages are tested by Google in the top 10 results, and therefore might be worth an extra optimization, with the Ryte "Google Top-10 Tests Report". You can start a free Ryte Trial to try this and other Ryte features.

Fig. 4: Ryte shows you the keywords for which your pages are currently tested in the top-10 results

If you have an online store or operate a marketplace, then you need to measure user expectations at the product level. You should focus on the product or category page and whether its content satisfies the user's expectation. If not, it's time to integrate or optimize the features accordingly.

How search intent can improve your rankings

In order for your traffic to become qualified leads, your content needs to rank in the top SERP positions. With a search intent-based SEO strategy, you can succeed.

So first, research the following:

  • What kind of content is popular in your industry or niche?

  • How is the best-ranking content structured? Is it long blog articles, or how-to guides, or just product pages?

  • What category of search intent do your targeted keywords fall into?

So when you approach your content editorial planning, it's best to think beyond “just” keyword selection, keyword volume, and content type. By thinking about user intent and expectation, you'll generate an additional layer of content planning that will help you draw relevant and qualified traffic to your site.

By keeping these things in mind, you can optimize your content for the search intent of the audiences you are targeting. Keywords, search phrases, search terms, even search history and location can all be factors of user intent. An SEO strategy based on search intent can noticeably improve your rankings, traffic, qualified leads and sales.

With this in mind, I hope I was able to “fully satisfy” your search intent!

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Published on Mar 4, 2022 by Julia Fähndrich